Santa Monica City Hall (File photo)

By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. February 26, 2019

One of the great things about Santa Monica’s civic process is the high level of community participation.  One of its greatest challenges is that same level of participation, as many who seek to speak at City Council meetings find there is already a long line of others waiting to do the same.

Tonight the Council is trying to tackle that issue through multiple changes to its meeting rules – most notably cutting back speaking times from two minutes to one minute on many items, after changing the speaking time on all items from three minutes to two back in 2008.  

This one minute restriction is the wrong approach and would undermine civic participation by providing a disincentive to show up at all. First to commit to speaking, one must plan one’s evening around being at City Hall – usually a commitment of a few hours, because first you have to travel back and forth, then once there you won’t know how long to stay to speak.

Even though there is a published agenda order, each item can take more or less time depending upon the number of speakers and the amount of time needed for Council debate. Even before the Council meets in open session, it meets first in closed executive session on legal matters. Depending upon the number and complexity of those items, the Council may not come even out of closed session at the expected time for the rest of the agenda to commence.

Even in the best of worlds, there is a great deal of uncertainty on the level of commitment required to speak.  Then comes the question of do you want to make it if you may only get one minute.

One minute speaking limit disrespects the community

The proposed rule would apply if/when there are 15 or more speakers on an item, or when there are 40 or more speakers for all items. Community members who carefully plan out a two minute presentation could be seated and ready to speak and only then hear their speaking time will be cut in half, as the number of speakers passes the speaker limit. Or it might be obvious in advance that there will be more than 15/40 speakers, and a potential speaker has to decide whether it is even worth spending a couple of hours for one minute to speak.

There is a major difference between the depth, detail and nuance one can express in two minutes compared to one. The staff report recommending this change glosses over this, claiming the recent City Council retreat on Council priorities restricted speaking to one minute and “participants came prepared to share their comments in a succinct fashion and stayed within the allotted one-minute time limit.  This allowed the meeting to progress in an efficient manner that allowed time for both the public, as well as the Council to deliberate on the matters before them.“

The Council retreat cited in the staff report was focused on setting general City priorities. It’s easy to express your top five priorities in one minute. But it may take much longer to express what policy preferences you have on each of them. This proposed new rule fails to appreciate that difference – and in so doing, fails to respect the community members who harbor those preferences and views.

Unavoidable Whac-A-Mole

When I first joined the City Council in 1996, the public portion of the meetings started at 6 p.m. (instead of 7 p.m. or afterward as today), with closed session at the end.  The result was that open session could finish earlier, but we often didn’t have a full Council when we went into closed session. Then the Council changed the rules to start closed session at 5 p.m., and we often lacked a quorum to start on time, because Councilmembers arrived late because of work conflicts, and/or we started closed session without a full council and/or a delayed starting time pushed back the rest of the meeting.

Some argue that we should have more regular meetings and do ‘less’ at each. When I joined the Council, meetings happened more than twice monthly, and they filled up just like building more lanes on a freeway doesn’t relieve congestion but just increases traffic.  It also resulted in the Council agenda being published late on Thursdays before an upcoming Tuesday meeting, with some agenda items coming in even later. When I was Mayor, what then City Manager Susan McCarthy and I did was keep Council meetings to twice monthly. A big benefit was that agendas got out on Tuesday instead of Thursday, giving the public more time to prepare, a benefit the community enjoys to this day.

What is the answer?  

Currently, Council closed session starts at 5:30 p.m. The Council needs to revisit starting earlier – Anaheim starts their closed sessions at 3 p.m. and their open sessions at 5 p.m. Santa Monica residents approved an increased compensation package for City Council members in 1998 to provide financial flexibility to allow more types of people to be able to serve on the Council.  Does our entire City need to be held hostage to 9 to 5 work schedules? Another option is monthly meetings on closed session items only, to reduce the amount of legal business heard before open sessions, so those sessions could finish on time.

The City is playing with political fire with this proposed one minute limit. Coming in the midst of a heated community debate around electoral systems, fair representation and the California Voting Rights Act, the timing and content of this proposal is absolutely tone deaf.  Restricting the community in this manner can lead to blowback we can’t even imagine today, perhaps residents voting against needed future bond measures, or worse.

The reality is that there is no easy answer to long Council meetings when many want to participate.  But there is a wrong answer – the ‘one minute’ time limit. On that proposal, the Council needs to vote ‘no’.

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004) .  He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein

Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press, that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.


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